A cheeky look at food as “an obsession, hobby, competitive sport, and profession; a seasonal calendar and nostalgic time capsule; a social lubricant and peace offering; a family heirloom; a drug and spiritual rite.”

Why does apple pie have “an important place in American history”? How did cold cereal become a staple that “transcends race, social class, age, gender—and even dietary guidelines”? Why is it that “between two-thirds and 90 percent of olive oil sold in the United States isn’t what it’s claimed to be”? Siegel seeks answers in these short and frequently hilarious essays on the origins of food. Chapter titles like “A History of Swallowing,” “Honey Laundering,” and “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” give a good sense of the author’s voice. Indeed, readers will find many memorable lines, as when he cites low points of culinary history, including “the use of foods such as honey and hot peppers for ritual torture” and “British food.” Despite the snarky tone, the book contains hard science—e.g., “honey is naturally acidic and hygroscopic, meaning it sucks moisture from its surroundings, not unlike salt, creating a harsh environment for bacteria and microorganisms to survive in.” Siegel’s fondness for long lists is overkill, but readers who enjoy passages that disgust as much as entertain will find much to like, as when he notes that McDonald’s adds a silicon-based polymer to its frying oil to reduce splatter: “the same chemical is also used in head lice treatments, condom lubricants, and breast implants.” Equally memorable chapters focus on corn (“a secret ingredient in almost everything we eat”); vanilla, which, during Prohibition, “made a decent substitute for alcohol for the drowning of one’s emotions”; and grocery store foods with added vitamins, such as “healthy heart orange juice with omega-3 (because what goes better with orange juice than tilapia, sardines, and anchovies?).” Little of the information is appetizing, but it’s never dull.

Idiosyncratic essays that will give foodies much to digest.